The Earl of Selkirk is a title in the Peerage of Scotland, created on the 4th August 1646 and awarded to a William Douglas the younger son of William Douglas, 1st Marquess of Douglas. Since the younger William Douglas was only twelve at the time this award of the earldom (together with the subsidiary title of Lord Daer and Shortcleuch) had little to do with his specific accomplishments and a great deal to do with generally encouraging the loyalty of the Douglases to the crown.
Our William later hit the jackpot in the seventeenth century marriage game when he married Anne Hamilton in 1656. Not only was Anne Hamilton a wealthy heiress but also Duchess of Hamilton in her own right. Duke of Hamilton by virtue of this marriage, on the 20th September 1660 William was additionally created Duke of Hamilton for life and adopted the surname of Douglas-Hamilton to reflect his new status. It later occurred to William that since he was now a duke and that his eldest son would inevitably inherit that title, that his own title of Selkirk was surplus to requirements. Therefore on the 6th October 1688 William surrendered the titles of Earl of Selkirk and Lord Daer and Shortcleuch in order that they might be regranted to his second surviving son Charles.
The particularly notable feature of this recreation of the dignity of Selkirk in 1688 was the special remainder that defined the course of descent for the title. It specified that in the event of the failure of the male line by Charles or his descendants, that the title should pass to the Duke's younger sons or their heirs male. And should the lines of all the younger sons fail, then the title should pass back to the senior line of the Dukes of Hamilton, but only until such time as the reigning Duke could produce a younger son, who would then inherit and start a new line of Earls of Selkirk. (Technically what is known as a shifting limitation and afterwards generally disapproved of by the House of Lords when it was given the opportunity.)
Charles, who appears originally to have been known as Charles Hamilton but adopted Douglas as his surname once he became Earl, neglected to produce any heirs so on his death the title passed to his younger brother John, who appears to have been known as both John Hamilton and John Douglas. John who already held the title of Earl of Ruglen, saw his only son predecease him and so on his own death the title of Selkirk went to a Dunbar Hamilton, the grandson of Basil Hamilton a younger brother of the 2nd and 3rd Earls. (The title of Ruglen, governed by completely different rules passed to John's daughter Anne Hamilton and thus pursued a separate history.)
Dunbar Hamilton, who changed his name to Dunbar Douglas when he inherited the title, had the misfortune of burying no less than six sons, but fortunately he had a seventh who was thus able to succeed him. His seventh son Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk was to become perhaps the most famous holders of the title.
Thomas held the title at the time of the Highland Clearances, and became concerned about the fate of the many who thus found themselves evicted from their homes. The 5th Earl became convinced that the solution was to encourage emigration to the colonies and therefore during the years 1803 to 1804 founded settlements at Prince Edward Island and at Baldoon in Upper Canada. He later acquired control of the Hudson's Bay Company and was responsible for the establishment of the Red River Colony. Although this settlement later failed due to the opposition of the North West Company his achievements were sufficient for him to be regarded as one of the founders of the nation of Canada. The 5th Earl died on the 8th of April 1820 partly, it is said, of a broken heart as a result of the failure of the Red River Colony.
He was succeeded by his son Dunbar James Douglas, 6th Earl of Selkirk who led a comparatively quiet life and died without issue on the 11th April 1885. With the death of the 6th Earl, whilst the title devolved on the 12th Duke of Hamilton, the Lordship of Daer and Shortcleuch is regarded as having become dormant. However although the title of Selkirk travelled in the direction of the 12th Duke, in accordance with the terms of the charter of 1688 it was actually inherited by the 12th Duke's younger brother, Charles George Douglas-Hamilton. Charles who was a lieutenant in the 11th Hussars succeeded to the title on the 11th April 1885, but died less than a year later on the 2nd May 1886 at the age of 38 and without issue. The title therefore reverted back to the 12th Duke of Hamilton (there weren't any more younger brothers), who thus added the dignity of the 8th Earl of Selkirk to his many other titles.
With the death of the 12th Duke in 1895 his titles all passed to a cousin who duly became the 13th Duke of Hamilton as well as the 9th Earl of Selkirk. The 13th Duke retained the title until his death in 1940 at which point the Duke's eldest son became the 14th Duke whilst the title of Selkirk then split off and passed to a younger son named George Nigel Douglas-Hamilton.
George Nigel was a Scottish representative peer between 1945 and 1963, and held a sequence of offices in post-war Conservative administrations including those of Paymaster-General (1953-1955), Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1955-1957). and First Lord of the Admiralty (1957-1959). He died without issue on the 24th November 1994 at the age 88 when the next in line for the earldom was James Alexander Douglas-Hamilton the younger brother of the 15th Duke of Hamilton.
However at the time James Alexander was actually the Conservative Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West and a Minister of State at the Scottish Office. As a peer of the realm James would therefore be required to resign his seat in the House of Commons. However the Conservative government of the time had a narrow majority, were trailing in the opinion polls and the last thing they wanted was a by-election in a marginal Scottish constituency. Fortunately James could rely on the provisions for the Disclaimer of Peerage and thus on the 28th November 1994 he formally rejected his elevation to the peerage and remained plain Mr Douglas-Hamilton.
This presents something of a conundrum as to where we should place James Alexander in the sequence of the Earls of Selkirk. Fortunately in this regard we have a decree of the Court of the Lord Lyon dated 14th March 1996 confirming his status as the 11th Earl of Selkirk, unclaimed.
James Alexander lost his seat in the General Election of May 1997 (the Liberal Democrats took the seat with a majority of 7,253) but his sacrifice was not forgotten and on the 29th September 1997 he was created the Baron Selkirk of Douglas. This is of course a life peerage in the Peerage of the United Kingdom but it at least means that James Alexander retains a seat in the House Of Lords a privilige he would not neccessarily enjoyed had he chosen to be a hereditary peer given the provisions of the House of Lords Act 1999.
His heir is John Andrew Douglas-Hamilton, who is known under his courtesy title as the Lord Daer. Note that in this regard it does not matter one whit that the Lordship of Daer is regarded as having been dormant for over a century and is not actually in the possession of his father; John Andrew may call himself what he wills.
THE EARLS OF SELKIRK
- William Douglas-Hamilton, 3rd Duke of Hamilton and 1st Earl of Selkirk (1646-1688)
- Charles Douglas, 2nd Earl of Selkirk (1688-1739)
- John Hamilton, 3rd Earl of Selkirk (1739-1744)
- Dunbar Douglas, 4th Earl of Selkirk (1744-1799)
- Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk (1799-1820)
- Dunbar James Douglas, 6th Earl of Selkirk (1820-1885)
- Charles George Douglas-Hamilton, 7th Earl of Selkirk (1885-1886)
- William Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, 12th Duke of Hamilton and 8th Earl (1886-1895) Alfred Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 13th Duke of Hamilton and 9th Earl(1895-1940)
- George Nigel Douglas-Hamilton, 10th Earl of Selkirk (1940-1994)
Title disclaimed 1994
- James Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, 11th Earl of Selkirk (1994-to date)
Note that all holders of the title have been Douglases, irrespective of what surname they chose to adopt.
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for
SELKIRK, THOMAS DOUGLAS, 5TH EARL OF
HAMILTON, MARQUESSES AND DUKES OF
- Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)
- Edinburgh West election results from The City of Edinburgh Council website
- A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com